Part I: The lessons of authoritarianism
Much have I travelled in the realms of authoritarianism. I’m the daughter of a man who was conscripted into the Austrian army at seventeen to fight for Hitler. Mercifully, my father was taken prisoner after a year and spent the rest of the war effectively under the protection of the Allies although even in an American prisoner of war camp, he and his friends were attacked by other prisoners for their anti-Nazi sentiments. Returning to the States after the war, he met a woman escaping the gloom of post-war Britain and the pair married and started a new life in England. In the house I grew up there were disagreements about many things but about the evils of Nazism, never.
I was a year into a PhD on philosophical responses to the holocaust when I noticed — doh! — the connection between my history and choice of research subject. I read books on the history of Nazism and — much more harrowing — personal testimonies from those who had been in concentration camps. It’s dark, almost incomprehensible reading that I never want to repeat. But my personal witnesses to the rise of Nazism in 1930s’ Vienna in the form of my father and his sister would never talk about their experiences.
Years later, visiting Syria as part of research for a book, I had a brief taste of what life might be under an authoritarian regime. Night after night I sat with students on a Damascus balcony and listened to their tales of loneliness: in a society where even small groups were forbidden from meeting, it was difficult to meet people. I went to one of the early protests against the Assad regime, a demonstration in support of political prisoners. Local attitudes in the streets and on the buses towards a foreigner were very different from the friendly curiosity of people in neighbouring Lebanon and Palestine. There was a wariness rooted in a paranoia about the state enemy (Israel) and anyone, particularly a woman asking questions, was a potential spy. Attempts to get interviews foundered and at one point I was taken for a honeypot. The fact that Syria’s secret police and the network of government informers who operated in every neighbourhood could be watching created a pervasive mistrust.